Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Teaching "Profession?"


I read David Warlick's comments on teaching as a profession at his 2¢ Worth blog, and it conjured up a question I have struggled with ever since becoming a teacher... do I belong to a profession?

In David's post, "The Teaching Profession," he describes an ongoing conversation at Will Richardson’s Weblogg-ed blog pondering the question whether teaching is a profession. David states that,
Semi-profession might actually be generous. Much of the job, especially as addressed by NCLB, is more like being a technician, applying prescribed, researched, and government-approved techniques on students, based on high-precision measurements... I suspect that the term professional, has described teachers because they've earned a college degree, and years ago they were among the only people in many communities who were educated to that level.
It's true, teachers have been called professionals, and for all the right reasons; I agree that we are. I can't, however say that just because teachers act professionally, that we belong to a profession. Defining a profession is evidently not as easy as it sounds. Even the Wikipedia article on the subject is controversial. The article mentions its own factual accuracy as potentially questionable. The part of this article under dispute is about the vernacular vs. legally-accepted use of the term. So often in education we use terms that we don't seem to implicitly understand, and alas it appears, that referring to teachers en masse as a profession may be another one of those terms. I don't believe that acquiring a university degree automatically means a person is a professional.

 So, I think we need some context if the rest of this post is going anywhere. One thing I've noticed about other "professions" is the relative control and influence they have over their own ranks, and also their purpose for existing in the first place. I'm not sure that within this context I could confidently define teaching as a profession. Teachers as professionals don't enjoy much control or influence over their own practice, and they sure don't appear to have much control or influence over what they're expected to do and how they do it.

My friend Joe Bower wrote a great piece recently at his For the Love of Learning blog entitled Five Ways to Get Education Right. In the post Joe compares Seth Godin's perspective from his new book Small is the New Big, regarding five reasons why companies make mistakes and then do nothing to remedy them, with what he feels is wrong with education reform. I'm going to key on Godin's second reason- The people in the field aren't given the ability to influence management without appearing to be troublemakers. Joe correlates this reason with the ridiculous concepts within education of larger rewards (merit pay) for "good teachers," or that harsher punishments (mass firings) will induce poor teachers to be better. I'm not sure that's a straight across correlation, but I think there's another possibility. I think Godin's second example of a mistake the business world makes correlates well with the biggest mistake education makes, and the one I feel precludes professional teachers from membership in a true profession... a lack of control and influence from within our ranks. We don't control or influence our own people, and we don't control or influence our purpose... the autonomy true professions enjoy regarding these points is not shared by teachers.

In Canada doctors have their College of Physicians and Surgeons, lawyers have their Bar Association and engineers have their Association of Professional Engineers. Within these cohorts, accreditation is granted, and monitoring of purpose is a perpetual responsibility that defines each cohort as a profession; they control their own. Teachers belong to their associations too, but there are two critical differences. Firstly, I received my accreditation from the government Department of Education, not my professional association. Secondly, the monitoring of my professionalism is ultimately the responsibility of the same Department of Education... the Minister of Education signs my teaching certificate, and only the Minister of Education can take it away. The critical difference between the teaching cohort, and the professional cohorts that lawyers, doctors and engineers belong to, is the ability of the latter to have control and influence over their ranks, and control and influence over their purpose. Teachers don't have this same control and influence because for some reason, we are not trusted to act on them responsibly.

So it boils down to respect in my opinion. There is no better entity to direct the future of education than teachers, but the general consensus among non-teachers seems to be otherwise. Teachers need to lobby and advocate for this privilege. We need to display our professionalism and work much more closely with our associations to assert that more autonomy to do what is pedagogically sound, morally and ethically proper and professionally astute would allow teachers to be seen as the knowledgeable and responsible experts they know themselves to be.

Perhaps then we won't be a bunch of professionals without a profession anymore.
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